Kiryat Shmona’s winning model

Perhaps unlikely champion will mark beginning of a new era in Israeli soccer.

Kiryat Shmona celebrates championship 370 (photo credit: Adi Avishai)
Kiryat Shmona celebrates championship 370
(photo credit: Adi Avishai)
In recent weeks, our soccer league has been plagued by a spate of bad news. Most recently, there was the brutal beating of Hapoel Haifa midfielder Ali Khatib, who, after trying to hit a rival player, was head-butted by Maccabi Petah Tikva’s goalkeeping coach Ami Genish and, after falling to the ground, kicked in the face by Yigal Maman, a Petah Tikva fan with enough clout to receive a special access pass from the club.
This disturbing incident was preceded by the rampage of a group of Betar Jerusalem fans in the food court at the Malha Mall. The hooligans shouted “Death to Arabs” and physically accosted several Arab employees of the mall. Indeed, this season has been marred by violence.
But on Monday, there was a beacon of light.
Hapoel Ironi Kiryat Shmona, a low-budget team from a town known more for the Katyusha rockets once fired at it from Lebanon and its struggling local economy than for its soccer prowess, sealed the national championship on Monday night. This means it will win the league for the first time since it was established in 2000.
It was also the first time a small club beat out the big four – Maccabi Haifa, Betar Jerusalem, Maccabi Tel Aviv and Hapoel Tel Aviv – since Bnei Yehuda won the championship in the 1989/90 season.
The message, sent by providence or fate or whatever, was that sometimes the good guys win.
True, Kiryat Shmona benefited from unusually weak performances by the better-funded clubs. But there was a certain element of justice in the fact that Hapoel Tel Aviv, Kiryat Shmona’s only serious challenger, was further set back after being docked three points because of fan violence and a post-match player brawl.
In contrast, Kiryat Shmona’s peaceful crowd and players have stayed away from all forms of hooliganism, concentrating instead on the game. Adding to the beauty of the moment was the picture of Salah Hasarma, 38, of Biana, an Arab village near Karmiel, who has played with Kiryat Shmona since 2006, receiving the trophies together with Adrian Rochet, 24, of Neot Mordechai, a Kibbutz near Kiryat Shmona, who came up through the club’s youth department to become the team’s captain. It seemed to demonstrate that coexistence between Arabs and Jews was possible, even in a place like Kiryat Shmona, which has over the years been exposed to cross-border attacks such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine’s 1974 massacre, which left 18 dead.
Hapoel Ironi Kiryat Shmona’s victory, which now puts the club just two qualifying rounds away from playing in next season’s Champions League and potentially pairing off against the likes of Barcelona, Manchester United or Bayern Munich, is also a major boost to the working-class town’s morale.
Much of the credit goes to Hapoel Ironi Kiryat Shmona’s owner, Izzy Sheratzky, a Tel Aviv millionaire who made his money from Ituran, a global positioning system that helps track stolen cars.
But for all of Sheratzky’s financial support, Hapoel Ironi Kiryat Shmona is still less well endowed than the big four. This emphasizes the critical role played by head coach Ran Ben-Shimon and the players. And only two – Serbian defender Dusan Matovic and Argentine striker David 0 – are foreigners.
Kiryat Shmona’s rise to fame has helped remind us all of something important. Soccer and other team sports have the potential to teach important lessons about human nature. Soccer can lift morale and bring pride to those who identify with a successful team.
Perhaps Kiryat Shmona’s victory will mark not just an end to the hegemony of the big four, but also the beginning of a new era in Israeli soccer – an era in which players and fans of other teams will cut the violence and hooliganism and emulate the Kiryat Shmona club’s good manners, sportsmanship and soccer skills on and off the field.